Adaptive Leadership, What Is It Really?

Oct 5, 2016

This is a question I get asked a lot, and given the wide range of definitions it’s no wonder I do.  Adaptive Leadership is one of the most important leadership ideas ever put forth in the field—and like so many important ideas it has become watered down. It is a profound set of practices pioneered by Ronald Heifetz at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  I was fortunate enough to be a teaching fellow for Ronnie and was immersed, first-hand, in its power and practicality.

Let’s start with what it’s not. It’s not about simply being flexible and agile.  This conjures up notions of leaders ready and willing to cope with comes their way.  A flexible mindset is always a good thing, but Adaptive Leadership asks much, much more from leaders.

The adaptive leader is one who faces complex challenges for which there are no easy answers.  The adaptive leader recognizes that meeting these challenges will require more than organization change, it will require real change from people –  changes in values, attitudes and behaviors.

An adaptive leader sees beyond the outdated notion that we should look to those at the top for the answers.  Adaptive leaders know that when people look above answers, they inadvertently become part of the status quo and are living in old paradigms of leadership.  Real change only occurs when people close to the action get involved in the work of leading.

Being involved means mobilizing groups, stakeholders, and relevant players to join the process of generating real solutions, regardless of your formal role in the company.  Leaders above are often critical to this, but the work of leadership belongs to us all.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that stood out to me while working with Heifetz was his conviction that leadership is a function and not a formal role.  In fact, it is a responsibility that we all must bear if we are to make our organizations and communities stronger, healthier and more productive.  The genius of recasting leadership as a function, is that we can all lead.  Indeed, we should all lead—when and where it’s needed.

Adaptive Leadership is a call to action.  A call to make a bigger difference.  A call to exercise leadership when and where it is needed.  These are a few of the hallmarks of adaptive leaders.  Much of our work and aspiration is to build adaptive leaders at every level.


Stacey Shively, Managing Director, Global Leadership Development